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What is catcalling?

At the origins of the phenomenon everyone is talking about, and why it's not a compliment

What is catcalling? At the origins of the phenomenon everyone is talking about, and why it's not a compliment

Here in Italy, today's digital feminist activism tends to use terms of English or American derivation that are often not immediately understandable to all of us, and it happens that they are presented as a response to various shitstorms, and then lost in Instagram stories. Among these there is also catcalling, a topic that has been talked about a lot in the last period. On Urban Dictionary, for example, it's defined as vulgar sexual comments made on the street by men to women, specifying that usually, the comments concern the female body or a part of it. 

Not the best definition, at least for two reasons. When we talk about catcalling we must not only refer to sexual comments, but also to all those cackles, whistles, comments, or honking that one person (or more) addresses to another, not only about appearance but also about attitude. The second point is that anyone can catcall, a man to a man, a woman to a man or a non-binary person, and so on. From a point of view of daily casuistry, we must admit that it happens more often than a man does it to a woman, but it is a phenomenon that needs to be analyzed a little better to dispel some myths. 


Why it's called catcalling

It's called "catcalling" because it's associated with those verses that are usually made to call cats, and bring them closer (even if it has a slightly more complex etymological history). The term was also recognized by the Accademia della Crusca in 2013 (that is the most important research institution of the Italian language). Until a few years ago, newspapers tended to use "street harassment", but this phenomenon has been existing for a long time: in the 1960s "parrotism" was used. Quoting Treccani this is how the behaviour of "street parrots" is defined, that is, of those who insistently and crudely harass women on the street. 

Another form of catcalling is wolf-whistling. It's named for the 1943 cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood, where the protagonist was a wolf named Wolf, who was consistently whistling like this at Red, a night club performer version of Little Red Riding Hood. Wolf-whistling indicates when a man whistles twice to emphasize that he feels physical attraction (or sexual interest) towards a passer-by, with a mood a bit Grease a bit sexist. So far we have mentioned cats, wolves, and parrots, it's useless to reiterate the association of this practice with an animal-like attitude, in terms of civilization rather than education. 

Compliment or harassment?

Many people associate the gestures that fall into catcalling with expressions of appreciation as if they were a compliment. There are even some who argue that one should also respond with a "thank you". So while falling within the definition of street harassment, we tend not to consider it as an act of psychological violence, which it is. A few months ago a study investigated the most frequent reasons that lead some men to do catcalling, including flirting or expressing sexual interest. The study shows that the reaction they expected from the women in question was “friendliness".

Let's take a classic catcalling scene, from a stereotypical textbook: a twenty-year-old woman is walking down the street and passes a group of men in their forties, who take turns commenting with "Hey", "Mamma mia", "Where are you going all alone" and so on. Reading these sentences first of all we notice that it is not necessarily vulgar language (it remains obvious that very often it is decidedly more vulgar). The fact is that unfamiliar people and unsolicited comments contribute to creating an uncomfortable situation, which girls consider potentially dangerous and can therefore feel fear because it is part of the broader sexist rape culture. There are those who find this last sentence exaggerated and who argue - exaggerating themselves - that nothing can be said anymore because now everything is harassment. These ideas detract from the context. The perception of the same sentence changes according to how it is said, where, when, by whom. A girl may respond with a smile or a joke, or - as is frequently the case - she may pick up the pace by squeezing tight her keys, based on how she feels in that situation. Also in the study cited above it was noted that people who had done catcalling showed higher levels of sexism, self-attributed masculinity, orientation to social domination and tolerance to sexual harassment. 


In pop culture, more or less

Catcalling affects how we behave, how we dress and how we move our bodies in public settings. If we look at today's pop culture, for example, we find that in the first episode of She's Gotta Have It (Netflix, 2017) the protagonist, Nola Darling, is coming home in the evening when a man catcalls her twice, she refuses both times the advances and the guy in question reacts by taking her wrists and calling her a whore: hence the big trauma

Catcalling is in effect a form of abuse that can be physical (taking the wrists, chasing and/or stopping), but also psychological, because women actually feel the "weaker sex", as well as the "second", as de Beauvoir said. When this happens, the dynamic that sees the man as a superior subject that objectifies the woman is replicated, without consent, without respect and above all without considering the possible reactions. In the TV series, for example, we see a proactive reaction for which Nola conceives a campaign against catcalling: My Name Isn't, and in the later period after the Sarah Everard case, similar initiatives and numerous collections are taking place of testimonies (such as that of Chiara Severgnini and Irene Soave or the series #catcallsof plus the name of the city, as in New York or in Milan). In fact, the latest survey (2018) Istat on the perception of security says that 35.3% of Italian women don't feel safe when they leave the house alone.  

We could also see a catcalling scene in I Promessi Sposi, yes the novel by Manzoni that we practically all had to study in high school. In fact, in the third chapter, Lucia tells sobbing that a few days before she was returning from work with her friends, but she had remained a bit behind. While walking she had met Don Rodrigo, who had "bothered her with vulgar words" and for this reason, she had accelerated her pace. What is curious - but not that much - is that Lucia blames herself, saying that she should have kept her eyes down: catcalling brings with it victimization, self-blame, and a lot of anger


What does the law say?

In 2018 there was a peak of searches on Google for the term catcalling, because online the news was insistently commented that in France it had become a crime punishable with fines from €90 to €1500, thanks to a law promoted by Marlène Schiappa, Minister for Equal Opportunities. 

Italian law doesn’t deal specifically with catcalling, but article 660 of the criminal code speaks of it in a more general way, punishing "anyone, in a public place or open to the public, or by telephone, for petulance or another blameworthy reason, causes some nuisance or disturbance". Through this article, it happened that an episode of catcalling was punished, but it would be interesting to think of introducing ad hoc aggravating circumstances in the case of sexist or racist connotations (or ableist, homo-lesbo-bi-transphobic, etc.), which are already consistent.